Oct 21, 2012
It's a great story, very well told by director/protagonist Ben Affleck, based on the true story of Tony Mendez, who concocted a fake film production in order to rescue out of Iran six American embassy employees who were hiding in the house of the Canadian ambassador, at the time of the Iranian hostage crisis.
The movie starts with a lovely, powerful sequence with storyboards that remind us of that once upon a time, there was a democratically elected Iranian leader, a secular man, who decided to nationalize his country's oil industry. In no time, the US and Britain engineered a coup d'etat and in his place put the Shah Reza Pahlavi, who became a monstrous murderer, thief and torturer. It was this intervention that helped create the Islamic Revolution which deposed the Shah, who was granted asylum in the US and never extradited as his the new regime in Iran justly requested. Today we have to deal with these fundamentalist maniacs thanks to our stellar foreign relations fiascoes such as that one. Times were so different then, before our middle eastern misadventures escalated into 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan, that it was not inconceivable that producers would want to go shoot a film in Iran just as the Revolution was happening. But truth is stranger than fiction.
Affleck plays Mendez, a stonefaced agent specializing in exfiltration (getting people out of messes), who gets the idea to use a fake movie as a cover, when no other cover will hold. There is much enjoyment to be had in the casting of the great John Goodman as the make up effects artist and CIA helper John Chambers, who helps put the fake production together and the marvelous Alan Arkin as Lester Siegel, an old Hollywood shark. Re Alan Arkin all one can say is that nobody in the business lands their lines with such deadpan aplomb. Everything that comes out of his mouth has perfect, devastating timing. Everything has a delicious zing. Goodman is on screen for like five minutes and almost steals the show. But it is the handling of the material that is most interesting. There is nothing funny about the first part of the movie. The violence is palpable, the hatred of America shot in close up (stellar, unobtrusive, but exciting work by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto), the nerves are frayed. But the moment the Hollywood plan turns up, comedy does too and one wonders if Affleck is going to be able to mesh the tones. Somehow, it works. All the actors are excellent, the jokes land well (except for one they keep repeating over and over), and the movie is very well done, the pacing exciting, the experience thrilling. Affleck is becoming a more confident director with each movie he makes. He greatly underplays plays Mendez as a dry man who is loath to betray feelings. His wooden face as he sits in a negotiation between Arkin and Richard Kind is hilarious. He betrays nothing except for a minuscule flick of recognition, perhaps awe, when Arkin mentions his friend Warren Beatty. This CIA man feels more alien in this meeting than perhaps in any other of his dangerous missions, but he too is impressed by star power. The third act is a nail-biting bit of suspense, including soaring string music (by Alexandre Desplat), just like in the movies, as if to weave the surrealism of the actual story with the fantasy of film. A bit where the fake filmmakers show some Revolutionary guards at the airport the film's storyboards and one of them literally pitches the movie to them in Farsi, with impropmtu sound effects, speaks to the power that stories, and movies, even the most farfetched and ridiculous, have to enthrall an audience. Argo ends too neatly, too happily, like in the movies. It is more of a caper with political sting than an issue movie and it errs on the side of telling a good story, even if it takes liberties, and cuts to the chase, like they do in the movies.